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Liza in the Big House : Minnelli’s Show From Radio City Shrinks in Size But Not Emotion

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Before her opening last year at New York’s famed Radio City Music Hall, Liza Minnelli would spend evenings alone on the stage.

“I used to go at 11 at night,” said Minnelli, 46, who has re-created the show as a PBS special this week. “I used to think and walk around.”

Although the Oscar-, Emmy- and Tony-winning daughter of Judy Garland and director Vincente Minnelli had known for a year she was booked into Radio City, the engagement had “snuck up” on her. And a few months before opening, she had no idea what the show was going to be about.

“I just don’t go in and sing a bunch of songs,” Minnelli said recently, relaxing in the living room of a plush suite at the Beverly Hills Hotel. “To me it is always a total thing. That I got from my father. (A concert) is about something.’

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But what was Radio City Music Hall about?

Minnelli didn’t have a clue. She recalled sitting on the huge stage and saying to herself, “What am I doing here? What do I want to do here?”

One day, she stumbled upon the Radio City archives and met the archivist, George Lemoine. Minnelli recalled her father telling her he had worked at Radio City back in the ‘30s as a designer. “It kind of just swept over me,” Minnelli said, lighting a cigarette. “He never went into detail because he never bragged about anything. He didn’t tell me he had five shows running on Broadway when he came to Hollywood!”

Minnelli asked Lemoine about her father. He promptly showed her four years’ worth of work her father had done. “Just the volume of the work alone was intense,” Minnelli said. “He started out doing the costumes and then he did the sets and the lighting and finally ended up producing and directing all of (the shows). It was mind-boggling.”

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So Minnelli found her connection with the Music Hall--her father. She decided to include a tribute to him in the show; it ends the first act. Included is a film she created featuring photographs of his sets and costumes she admired, plus a montage of photographs featuring herself and her dad.

“I put it to a song I remembered that Fred Ebb and John Kander had written called ‘Seeing Things,’ ” she said. “It was how different people see things different ways. I remember there was a line that said, ‘You are the earth and I am the sky. Please consider seeing things.’ I thought that was so true. He was so kind of like sky. I asked Fred to rewrite some of the words for me and it became about a father and daughter and my dad saying, ‘Look, don’t see what’s there, see the possibilities.’ ”

Her father would have been proud. Minnelli’s three-week stand became the highest-grossing concert in the Music Hall’s 60-year history and the highest-grossing single concert appearance anywhere in the United States that year. In January, Minnelli taped the special, “Liza Minnelli Live! From Radio City Music Hall.” Last month, Sony Music Video Enterprises released the video and laser-disc versions and Columbia Records the compact disc and audiocassette.

The 90-minute concert is divided into two distinct parts. Minnelli appears alone in Act I singing “Some People” from “Gypsy,” Stephen Sondheim’s “Old Friend” and “Living Alone and Like It,” Kander and Ebb’s “Sorry I Asked” and “Sara Lee” and Charles Aznavour’s “Quiet Love.”

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In the second act, she is joined on stage by 12 singing and dancing women who come up from the audience. Minnelli and her “demon divas” perform a medley of “men” songs, a tribute to Bob Fosse ( who directed her to an Oscar in “Cabaret”) and her signature tune, Kander and Ebb’s “Theme from New York, New York.”

Minnelli said she picked the songs because they tell a story. “To me it is always what (a song) says and what it is about and if it has meaning personally for me and for women,” she said, taking a sip of her iced coffee. "(Women) have a lot on our minds and I have tried to find songs that reflect that.”

She and director Ebb came up with the show’s concept. “We started auditions and we hired (choreographer) Susan Stroman, who is wonderful,” Minnelli said. “One day I said to Fred, ‘We have seen a really lot of talented guys but we are seeing a lot of talented women. Why don’t we use just women? Not Rockettes, but women like from 15 to 65.’ And that kicked him off. He said, ‘Wouldn’t it be great if they come out of the audience?’ ”

Minnelli thought going solo in the first act would complement the second. “We figured out the first half would be basically about different feelings and what women go through,” Minnelli said. “It is about being alone in a space where you are this big and have to pull it all together. It is about loneliness and that you get healed up by people. All of those wonderful women in the second half, they heal you up.”

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While she was talking, Minnelli was visited by her friend, singer Michael Feinstein. “We were talking about Radio City,” Minnelli told him.

“Have you seen the video?” Feinstein asked her visitor as he sat down on the sofa next to Minnelli. “The thing which is great about the show is that it has the grandeur of Radio City, but it also has the intimacy of Liza. The sequence about her father is so moving. It was moving at Radio City, but the way it is presented in video is so much more moving because it is more intimate.”

Minnelli, obviously moved, smiled. “Thank you,” she said softly to Feinstein.

“Liza Minnelli Live! From Radio City Music Hall” airs Sunday at 9 p.m. on KCET and 7:15 p.m. on KPBS, which repeats it Saturday at 10 p.m.

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